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6.2.19 Life Story Work Guidance


All children with a plan for adoption must have a Life Story Book. Other children, separated from their birth families, will also benefit from an open and honest approach to understanding their personal history and having a ‘memory box’. For children in these circumstances, it is key to a child being able to establish their identity and emotionally develop. The chapter highlights important steps and processes and provides a theoretical framework and additional references, as well as highlighting the development of the child’s life story at important stages of the Bolton permanency planning process for a child.


Later Life Letters Guidance

This chapter was added to the manual in March 2019.


  1. Introduction / Policy statement
  2. Definitions
  3. Why is Life Story Work Important?
  4. When to Complete Life Story Work
  5. Who Should Complete Life Story Work and How is this Recorded
  6. What Do You Need to Consider When Completing Life Story Work with a Child?
  7. When Children May Not Be Ready
  8. How the Life Story Work Will Be Undertaken
  9. References and Further Reading

    Appendix 1: Life Story Work with Children at Different Stages

    Appendix 2: Types of Placements and Responsibilities

1. Introduction / Policy statement

All children looked after by Bolton Council are entitled to, should have, and should be engaged in building life story records which represent a realistic and honest account of their circumstances, their family, identity and an age appropriate understanding of their journey into and through care, and beyond.

Life story documentation should follow the child and be continually updated and added to throughout the time the child is looked after.

Information gathered to develop and/or add to a child or young person’s life story work will be stored in a secure way where appropriate in a safe lockable place, to protect the child or young person’s confidentiality. As this work is so critical for young people copies of key information must be kept - one in hard copy with the child and another electronically in case records.

These records remain the property of the child.

2. Definitions

When discussing this area of work a number of terms tend to be used interchangeably, although they describe quite different activities. The following definitions attempt to differentiate between these terms for greater clarity:

‘Direct work’ describes working face-to-face with a child using a variety of methods, according to the age, level of understanding and preference of the child. The focus can be on any subject. Methods include play, story books, workbooks/worksheets, family trees, ecomaps, timelines, CD-Roms etc.

‘Life story work’ means telling the story of a child’s life history to enable the child to understand their past. In the majority of cases this will involve direct work with the child, since even very young children can be involved in an age-appropriate way. Life story work is commonly done for children placed for adoption to give a factual narrative about their lives before embarking on life with a new family (Ryan & Walker, 2007). However, it can also be a therapeutic tool that deals with the inner world of the child who may never find a new permanent family and how that relates to the child’s perception of his/her reality. It can be an essential part of the recovery process for all traumatized children (Rose and Philpot, 2005).

‘Life story book’ is the means of recording information about the child’s past in an accessible way for the child. It will include both photos and narrative. For the majority of children this will be the tangible outcome of life story work. For those children who cannot be engaged in direct work (mainly the under 2) the book will be prepared on their behalf for the future.

3. Why is Life Story Work Important?

Children who live with their birth families have many opportunities to know their past and to clarify past and present events. However, children separated from their birth families are often denied these opportunities; they may have changed families, social workers, schools, homes, and moved away from familiar neighbourhoods and communities. Children who lose track of their past and who are confused about the present, are likely to find it difficult to develop emotionally and socially. If adults cannot or do not discuss this with them, it is reasonable for children to suppose that it may be bad, (Ryan & Walker 2016).

Life Story Work is imperative for all looked after children and specifically in preparation for adoption (Rees, 2009):

  • To give details and understanding of the child’s history;
  • To build the child’s sense of identity;
  • To enable the child to share his past with adopters/carers;
  • To give a realistic account of early events to dispel fantasies;
  • To link past with present and help the carer and child understand how early life events impact on behaviour;
  • To acknowledge issues of separation and loss;
  • To enable adopters/carers to understand and develop empathy for the child;
  • To enhance the child’s self-esteem and resilience;
  • To help the child develop a sense of security and permanence;
  • To promote atonement and attachment to carers/adopters.

4. When to Complete Life Story Work

There is a significant precursor to life story work which forms the foundation on which it is built; that foundation is the child’s awareness of the reasons why they are not living at home and what changes would need to take place to enable this to happen. Even children as young as 2 or 3 can be given simple explanations which are truthful, and which will help to prepare the child should reunification not be possible. There may be a tendency, arising from the best of intentions, to be over-protective and to feel that young children, should not be exposed to the harsh reality of their birth family’s situation, although they have experienced this first hand and in a far more intrusive way than we might be able to imagine.

If children are helped to have a basic understanding of their situation at this stage, the transition into life story work forms a logical progression at the point where it becomes clear that the child is unlikely to return home. This marks the beginning of the first phase of life story work, which helps the child to understand the reasons why they are unable to return home and to express their feelings about this.

All Looked After Children

When a child is removed from the care of their birth family they must be supported to understand the reasons for this in an age appropriate way, taking account of their level of emotional development. Indeed, information about court and care planning processes can be built into the work being undertaken with the child to help them understand what is happening. Children will need to have an explanation of why certain decisions were made. These explanations should be clearly recorded on the child’s file so that subsequent social workers are easily able to find what children have previously been told and build on these explanations. Workers from Referral and Assessment and Safeguarding Teams have a crucial part to play in ensuring the foundations are laid for future explanations.

The pace, progress and timing of life story work must be consistent with other processes that are underway, particularly the Court and Adoption Panel processes. However, even if direct work with the child is not possible at certain times, it will still be possible to plan the next phase of work and gather the information that will be needed.

Life Story Work is an on-going process which requires revisiting and reviewing throughout the time the child is in care.

When the Child’s Plan is Adoption

As soon as a review agrees that the child’s permanence plan should be adoption, the team manager should clarify with the social worker the stage of life story work that has been reached, and ensure that the worker is in a position to take this forward in preparing the child for adoption. The social worker should be able to identify clearly the key themes which need to be addressed in life story work.

When the plan is for a child or young person to be adopted, the social worker who knows the children must write a later life letter. The letter needs to be realistic and sufficiently detailed so that the young adult fully understands their life before adoption, why they could not remain with their birth parents, and why they were adopted. The prospective adopters must be given the letter within ten working days of the adoption ceremony. (See Later Life Letters Guidance).

5. Who Should Complete Life Story Work and How is this Recorded

The child's allocated social worker has the overall responsibility for coordinating life story and memory box information and ensuring that this work is collated for and completed with the child.

The child’s social worker will record on the child’s electronic file, for future reference, at the time of every placement change, positives and negative aspects prior to the child moving or shortly afterwards should be referenced depending on circumstances; the first record will be the Social Workers account of the child’s removal from birth family when they initially became looked after and clearly the reasons for this; this will be essential information to support the Life Story Work with the child.

Carers introduction information should be recorded on the child’s file together with the change of placement date by the child’s social worker.

Life Story Work planning should take place at the Placement Planning Meeting. The agreed plan should be recorded in the Identity and Culture section of the Placement Plan form. The detail of the life story work requirements together with identified roles and responsibilities will be recorded in the child’s care plan under the section ‘Identity’ and is to remain under review at LAC reviews and pathway plan reviews. The child’s social worker must ensure that any previous information on life story is provided to the child or young person’s carer within one week of the child being placed.

Foster carers are responsible for contributing to life story work and keeping life story records, (photos etc.) and ensuring that this is kept up to date and shown/shared with the child’s social worker and the supervising social worker at regular intervals, at a minimum at the statutory review episodes. The Independent Reviewing Officer will seek an update from the social worker and the child or young person’s carer, together with an outline of the forward plan.

At the annual foster review the Supervising Social Worker will ask the foster carers what information, documentation including photographs, certificates etc. they have collated for the child or young person and how they have been maintained. The Supervising Social Worker will check what progress has been made and whether the Foster Carer’s need any further support, training or materials to maintain or progress their contribution to the child’s Life Story Work.

A key objective of any child or young person’s placement will be to support education achievement and attainment. Education staff have a valuable role contributing information to a child or young person’s life story and should be asked to supply appropriate information at regular intervals.

External, independent fostering agencies, foster carers and residential providers of placements for children in care are required to adhere to this policy and procedures document. Contracts and placement agreements will need to set out expectations and how the provider will deliver against the child/young person’s Life Story Work needs and plan.

The social worker for the child must ensure that foster carers, residential care staff and reviewing officers have a full understanding of the child's past and the history of why they are in care so that the foster carers and residential care staff are able to support and advise the child or young person if they enquire.

It is a part of the social worker’s responsibility to ensure that life story work is a key part of the child’s care plan and that all of the relevant professionals, including carers, are engaged in collecting and obtaining all the information regarding the child life story and ensure that this work is carried out and managed. Line managers must ensure that social workers are meeting this expectation through discussion in supervision and quality assurance activities. The child or young person's own contribution to their life story is crucial and must be encouraged and facilitated.

Life Story Work completed with a child should be recorded under ‘Direct Work’ in case notes section of their electronic file and reference any uploaded documents.

For further guidance on types of placements and their responsibilities see Appendix 2: Types of Placements and Responsibilities.

6. What Do You Need to Consider When Completing Life Story Work with a Child?

Any direct work with the child or young person on life story will be carried out in a safe and secure environment where the child feels comfortable. It should be completed with the person with whom the child feels most comfortable (directed by the Social Worker). Children of different ages, abilities, disabilities and cultural backgrounds may not be able to directly engage in the work, in such cases social workers will need to think and work creatively to ensure that every child and young person has a meaningful and accessible life story - see Appendix 1: Life Story Work with Children at Different Stages.

A risk assessment and analysis should be completed by the Social Worker prior to undertaking direct life story work with a child or young person to establish the most appropriate way to involve them.

Katie Wrench and Lesley Naylor (2013) identify 6 key stages in the Life Story Work Process; this is an extremely useful model for practice with Looked After Children as it ensures the approach to completing Life Story Work is responsive to the child’s needs. Please refer to the reference list for Life Story Work resources. Social Workers should discuss the preferred direct work tools with their line manager and experienced Life Story practitioners in the organisation.

  • Building a sense of safety - Often this means beginning Life Story Work by helping the child regulate and lower arousal levels;
  • Building emotional literacy - At the beginning of life story work it is important to establish whether the child has words for feelings and can match them to events;
  • Building resilience and self-esteem - Celebrate the strengths and achievements of the child and have high aspirations for them. Think about what builds resilience for looked after children and ensure these needs and actions by those involved with the child are reflected in their care plan;
  • Building a sense of personal identity - As a result of their experiences throughout their life looked after children often have a negative sense of self and damaged sense of identity. Remember that understanding of the “self” can be difficult, particularly for children severed from their roots and without a clear future, it is made easier by separating out some of the more easily definable parts and discussing them openly with a child. One way of doing this is to talk about the past, present and future (Ryan & Walker 2016). Think about the questions the child may have about their past, present and future or the gaps for them in their knowledge they may not be able to verbalise, this is a good starting point for life story work;
  • Information sharing and integration - A child or young person may have a completely different understanding of what has taken place in relation to the actual facts. The purpose of life story work is to try and ensure that the child or young person ultimately has an accurate understanding of what has happened to them; how this is achieved will need to be agreed and reviewed. This often means sharing difficult details with children however children should be given explanations that are truthful yet compassionate in an age appropriate way;
  • Looking to the future - Life story work should span the developmental stages of childhood. This means the work is not a one off event, but an ongoing living process that supports the young person to make new meanings as s/he develops cognitively and emotionally.

7. When Children May Not Be Ready

There may be occasions when the child or young person will not feel comfortable to engage in this work and it is crucial to accept this and go at the child’s place.

If professionals involved believe that a child requires therapy and that undertaking Life Story Work would not be helpful at this stage then this must be taken in to consideration; however this should not prevent the on-going collation of materials that will be used at a later date.

At this stage Life story work focuses on what is happening to the child now and how they can move forward with support focusing direct work on building children’s sense of safety, emotional literacy, resilience and self-esteem and identity.

It is important that at each stage a child or young person’s case is transferred to another team and at the end of their period in care a check is made about who has life story records and where they are. A note must be recorded on the child’s file to this effect. For children who are not yet receptive to receiving information about their past a letter should be prepared for the young person by the transferring Social Worker and a copy held on file. There should be a clear note on the file advising who is best placed to discuss life story work with the young person if it is requested at a future date.

8. How the Life Story Work Will Be Undertaken

The collation of materials and items will be agreed between the social worker, foster carer, supervising social worker, and the child’s family to ensure all of the child's life is covered.

Sensitive information and important documents, including photographs should be stored safely by the child's social worker and/or foster carer, residential placement in a confidential and lockable place, and measures taken to ensure that these are not passed to anyone who should not have access to them. Copies of key documents etc. should be kept by the social worker, one in hard copy and another electronically. Photos can be scanned onto the child’s ‘life story work episode’ and originals held in a memory box.

Consideration needs to be given regarding how the child or young person’s life story will be managed and which approach is considered the most appropriate, this could include collecting memorabilia in a special memory box, using direct work tools, creating a life story book or writing letters. This will clearly depend on the child’s age and stage of emotional development, individual circumstances, and the child’s ability to engage with the process, specific factors including religious and cultural background, gender, disability or specific educational needs but usually a combination of all approaches is likely to be most appropriate.

9. References and Further Reading

Practical Guides for Life Story and Direct Work:

  • ‘Life Story Work: Why, What, How and When’ by Tony Ryan and Rodger Walker (2016);
  • ‘Life Story Work: A Practical Guide to Helping children Understand their Past’ by Tony Ryan and Rodger Walker;
  • ‘The New Life Work Model: Practice Guide’ by Edith A. Nicholls;
  • ‘Life Story Books for Adopted Children. A Family Friendly Approach’ by Joy Rees (2009);
  • ‘A Child’s Journey through Placement’ by Vera Fahlberg;
  • ‘A Child’s Own Story. Life Story Work with Traumatized Children’ by Richard Rose and Terry Philpot (2005);
  • ‘My Memory Book for Babies and Toddlers’ by Edith A. Nicholls;
  • ‘Preparing Children for Permanence’ by Mary Romaine with Tricia Turley and Non Tuckey;
  • ‘Communicating Through Play: Techniques for assessing and preparing children for adoption’ by Bernie Stringer;
  • ‘Life Story Work with children who are Fostered or Adopted: Creative Ideas and Activities’ by Katie Wrench and Lesley Naylor (2013).

Practical Resources:

  • ‘Chester and Daisy Move On’ by Angela Lidster;
  • ‘Finding a Family for Tommy’ by Rebecca Daniels;
  • ‘Nutmeg gets Adopted’ by Judith Foxon;
  • ‘Elfa & the Box of Memories’ by Michelle Bell;
  • ‘The Anti-Colouring Book’ by Susan Striker and Edward Kimmel;
  • ‘A is for adoption’ - Manchester’s City Council Children’s Guide to Adoption for Young Children;
  • ‘Everything you need to know about being adopted’ - Manchester’s City Council Children’s Guide to Adoption for Older Children;
  • ‘Life Story Work What it is and what it means’ by Shaila Shah and Hedi Argent;
  • ‘My Life Story CD-ROM - Bridget Betts and Afshan Ahmad.

Research into Outcomes/Children’s Views:

  • ‘Adopted Children Speaking’ by Caroline Thomas and Verna Beckford with Nigel Lowe and Mervyn Murch;
  • ‘Direct Work. Social work with children and young people in care’ edited by Barry Luckock and Michelle Lefevre;
  • ‘Life Story Work. Reflections on the experience by looked after children and young people’ (Adoption & Fostering Journal) by Rachel Willis and Sally Holland.

Appendix 1: Life Story Work with Children at Different Stages

Under five’s

Children under the age of 5 need to have a very basic understanding of what has happened to them. The life story work needs to be completed in a sensitive and simple format, usually through the use of creative play, to give the child a sense of identity and why they are in placement.

Social workers are required to provide:

  • A chronology;
  • Information on health;
  • Family background; and
  • To assist carers in the completion of the life story work.

Foster carers and social workers will need to keep significant objects or photographs which are important to the child.

Pictures of the creative play should be taken and put into the life story book as a record of what has been discussed.

Children of Primary School Age 5-11

From the age of 5 children are beginning to develop an awareness and understanding of what has happened to them and they may need more in-depth work undertaken with them.

Time needs to be taken to give the children the understanding of how their past should be introduced to them. This could be by using interactive DVD, wall paper used to look at time lines, positive and negative events in the child's life. Extracts can be scanned for life story books.

Some children will be ready to talk, discuss and listen at this age, but others will not be ready. The children should be given the opportunities to explore their past if they are ready, but not forced to if they are not. If they are not ready, on-going opportunities to think about their readiness must be provided to them.

Children of Secondary School Age 11-17

At this stage most children have a better understanding and start to ask specific questions about their circumstances. Young people need to be talked to more openly, but with care in relation to their maturity and emotional development. Young people at this stage are asking questions and probing the reasons they are in care and need to have opportunities to explore and talk in an appropriate and constructive way that best suits them.

Young People Leaving Care 18+

Young people often request to see their files when they leave care to gain an understanding of why they did not always live with their birth parents Files will need to be prepared to ensure that the information meets the requirements of the Data Protection Act.

Appendix 2: Types of Placements and Responsibilities

Internal Foster Placements

Bolton Council are responsible for ensuring the child's life story information is kept up to date whilst in placement and for evidencing what they are doing and discuss what they are planning to do as next steps. Information such as observations of a child, personality, successes, funny anecdotes are all things a child will enjoy reading about themselves.

A few anecdotes from the foster carer/residential worker can be added to records but this should not distract from the main story. Examples of information to be collected by carers and residential staff are:

  • Descriptions of what the child was like when they arrived, what they liked and disliked;
  • Details of development e.g. learning to ride a bike;
  • Their own special memories of the child;
  • Special and landmark occasions birthdays, holidays, religious festivals;
  • Details/photos of the family or staff members Inc. extended family, friends and pets;
  • Spiritual rituals the child liked;
  • Souvenirs of school;
  • Illnesses.

Connected Persons

There is often an assumption that if a child is placed with a ‘connected person’ that they will be able to share a realistic account of the life story of the child. This is not always the case and care needs to be taken to ensure that the connected person is helped to understand the importance of sharing accurate information about the child.

External Placements

The contracts with independent external fostering and residential providers includes the expectation that life story information will be collected in keeping with Bolton’s policy and procedures. As part of the quality assurance process for external providers, the commissioning team will obtain evidence from providers that the life story policy is being complied with.

Residential Homes

Residential homes may not have the same environment in which to undertake life story work and this needs to be taken into consideration when deciding how best to undertake this work with the child or young person. Life story work will be discussed at the placement planning meeting and where appropriate progressed. The plan needs to be confirmed by or at the first Looked After Child Review confirming whom within the residential home will take responsibility for the life story work and plan. For some children and young people in residential care work may need to be deferred with the child until they are safe and secure.

Secure Units

There will be specific limitations in engaging some young people placed in secure units. A discussion needs to take place between the care staff at the secure unit and the child’s social worker and Independent Reviewing Officer detailing what information is collated and shared until an appropriate time when this can be shared with the young person.

Shared Care

A number of children’s care plans involve shared care arrangements with foster carers or residential homes. These children remain living with their parents and stay regularly with a specific carer for short breaks. It is anticipated their foster carers/residential homes who provide short breaks will also contribute information concerning the child or young person i.e. photos of significant events and provide this to the child or young person’s social worker or family.


All children who are adopted must have a life story book and a later life letter completed within 10 days of the adoption ceremony; this is a statutory requirement.

The life story book should be started prior to the child being placed in their adoptive placement but will be completed following the adoption and with the prospective adopter’s involvement. The life story work should be shared with the prospective adopters and in stages; stage one (past) by the secondary statutory review of the child’s placement with the prospective adopters and stage two (present and future), at the latest together with the later life letter, within 10 working days of the adoption ceremony, i.e. the ceremony to celebrate the making of the adoption order. It would be anticipated that if a child has a memory box or foster carer’s photo album etc. this would be given to the prospective adopters at the point of placement.

The life story book should be written in the present i.e. post placement for adoption: in the child’s adoptive (not birth), name and should include the making of the Adoption Order and end with looking to the future as part of their new family.

The adopted child may wish to share parts of their life story book to their new family and friends but care must be taken as the book will include information on third parties i.e. photographs, addresses and foster carer’s information.

Once the life story book and later life letter are completed, a copy should be made and placed on the child’s adoption file in case the original is lost or destroyed.